Mental health conditions are not exclusive to the autism spectrum, but autistic individuals are more likely to have co-occurring mental health conditions. The pandemic has highlighted the need for more information, resources, and supports for the autism community.
One of my friends is an autistic adult. Their mental health has declined over the last few months as a result of increased isolation. I was wondering if you had any advice, resources, or recommendations on how I can help them. Should I help them? I have no idea.
I wouldn’t say they’re suicidal, but things have gone to dark places once or twice lately. Now, they have a much shorter fuse for handling things like bad social interactions (like a friend saying something ignorant), which has led to fits of panic or periods of being non-speaking for hours. It seems like it’s been taking less and less time to get to that state. There isn’t a well-established social network of friends available to them. Excuse my own ignorance, but I don’t know much on the subject of autism which is why I am searching and reaching out.
My name is Jake Anthony and I’m the former Program Ambassador at AutismBC as well as an adult on the autism spectrum. Kudos to you for asking the question and seeking help on behalf of your friend. When you ask the question “should I help them?” it means that you’re being sensitive to your friend’s emotions and respectful of their boundaries. Acknowledging that there’s learning to be done is a great place to start. We need more humble allies like you in our world.
Being an individual on the autism spectrum myself, I know how much isolation can affect the mental health of individuals on the spectrum. Along with my autism diagnosis, I was also diagnosed with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) when I was a child. Here are a few tips I have for you when supporting autistic people who struggle with mental health conditions:
Don’t assume certain emotional responses are personal: There have been many times in my life where people have assumed that my dark state of mind as I’m struggling with depression and anxiety is me being upset with them. Some people have ended up getting angry with me, thinking I’m unfairly blaming them for my emotional troubles.It’s important to remember that a lot of people battling mental health challenges deal with their low periods differently and it should not be taken personally. Some individuals completely shut down and keep to themselves. Others might seem on-edge or irritated for what seems like no reason. We all have our own processes for dealing with difficult emotions. Sometimes feelings like anger and fear are misdirected (i.e., directed at the wrong people or they come out over something that has nothing to do with what’s really bothering them). Instead of making a snap assumption that the person is trying to be unpleasant, try and ask what’s upsetting them. Some people may not be in a place where they’re able and willing to talk about it. If that’s the case, give them their space for the time being and bring it up later when they’re in a better place emotionally. By doing this, you can develop a better understanding of peoples’ ways of dealing with their emotions.
Remember that each autistic person’s co-occurring mental health conditions are different and affect them in different ways. If the person is comfortable talking about it, take the time to get to know more about what their mental health situation is.
Don’t assume you know why a person is acting or reacting in a certain way. Making assumptions tends to lead to a lot of misunderstandings that could be avoided by simply asking the person what’s bothering them. If the person needs space and can’t talk about it at that point, bring it up again later at a better time when they’re ready.
We all have personal boundaries that we want other people to respect:
Sometimes, even though it’s usually done with the best of intentions, someone might cause somebody who’s struggling with their mental health to become more upset by trying too hard to get involved and help. If the person’s saying or acting like they need space, it’s important that that boundary be respected. Otherwise, continuing to engage can cause the person’s mental state to get worse.
It’s best to ask people what you can do to support them instead of trying to tell them what they need, which comes across as patronizing. If they say there’s nothing you can do to help, it’s important to back off and respect that they don’t want or require your help.
Some people with mental health conditions may only feel comfortable talking about their challenges with a mental health professional. It’s important to not only respect this boundary but to not take it as a personal rejection of your help as a friend. Some subjects and experiences are too personal and difficult for individuals to feel comfortable talking about outside of a doctor/therapist-patient relationship. Different people have different needs.
Sometimes the best way to support somebody who’s struggling with their mental health is to simply let them know that you’re an email or phone call away if they need you. This way, they can reach out to you on their own terms when they’re ready to ask for your support.
Listening is key! This means the ability to listen to a person’s mental health challenges, but to also listen to what they’re saying they need from their support circle of friends and family. Sometimes the person may just need someone to talk with or to pour their feelings and thoughts out to.
Here are some resources that I hope will help your friend on the autism spectrum during these challenging times. It is important to have peer-to-peer support, especially during times of isolation.